“The Singing Killer - that’s me! When it comes to fighting and other daring acts, don’t belittle me!” croons pop star Johnny (David Chiang), drumming up a storm while limber guys and gals shake their groovy stuff on the dance floor. Catchy lyrics supplied by director Chang Cheh. That’s right. This finger-snapping youth musical comes from the actor-director team that spilled more blood and intestines onscreen than your local butcher. And no, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. That really is kung fu icon Ti Lung playing Rickenbacker guitar onstage in a brief cameo.
Of course, as a Shaw Brothers stalwart, Chang Cheh had directed musicals before. In fact, The Singing Killer is an instant remake of his earlier hit The Singing Thief (1969) starring singing sensation Jimmy Lin Chong, except this time the campy song-and-dance numbers sit alongside bloody violence and kung fu action. Teen heartthrob Johnny is determined to distance himself from his criminal past. After wowing the crowds, he takes it down a notch with a treacly ballad on electric piano. Girls go wild as Johnny zooms off in his E-type jag, en route to a rendezvous with his long-lost love, Lily (Wang Ping), for whom he’s been searching these past few years. Unfortunately, the love letter he got is a fake, arranged by his onetime criminal cohorts, Brother One (Ku Fei) and sexy vixen Ho Man (Tina Chin Fei), who aim to lure Johnny back into his old wayward ways. Unless Johnny steals and copies the key to a safe owned by sleazy nightclub manager/fight promoter Old Fung (Chan Sing), they threaten to force Lily into prostitution. It’s all lie. Neither they nor police detective Wang (Fung Sui-Fan) have been able to locate Lily ever since she vanished after being accidentally disfigured during one of Johnny’s criminal misadventures. All this time, he’s been saving his earnings to pay for an operation to remove her scars.
Johnny steals the key, only to discover the real mastermind is Old Fung who caught his crime on a hidden 8mm camera. He now blackmails Johnny into raiding a jewellery store, using his pop star fame to get past the guards. Unbeknownst to everyone, this is the same store where Lily works, having somehow eluded her ex-lover despite being literally across the street from the club where he sings every night.
Stylistically, this kitschy kung fu melodrama bears a strong Seijun Suzuki influence, circa Tokyo Drifter (1966), though its plot shamelessly steals elements from varied sources including the superior Elvis Presley vehicle King Creole (1958) and the Douglas Sirk classic Magnificent Obsession (1954). However, Sirk made a lot more out of his hero’s guilt over blinding the heroine than Chang Cheh does here. Indeed, when we finally glimpse Lily she seems scar-free and the film quietly drops this angle thereafter. Still, one wonders whether Chang’s famous protégé John Woo sought to improve on this flawed effort when lifted parts of its plot for his masterpiece: The Killer (1989). Chang’s usual heavy-handed moralising is in evidence but tempered by an empathy with lowlife outsiders and the misunderstood, not just the tortured hero but the complex femme fatale played by the ever-glamorous Tina Chin Fei. Her malicious minx turns out to harbour a heart of gold. She scolds Lily for being overly judgemental, helps Johnny flee the cops, and even sells her body to a dirty old man to buy the young lovers some time.
Of course, being a “fallen woman” in a Chang Cheh movie, she still bites the bullet and expires poignantly whispering “I loved you more than Lily” in Johnny’s ear. By contrast, Lily proves somewhat whiny and bland. Adding to the annoyance is the daytime soap opera organ music that underscores every romantic moment. Actress Wang Ping was far more engaging as the resourceful blind heroine in Shaw’s haunted house murder mystery thriller: The 5 Billion Dollar Legacy (1969).
Early into his career Chang Cheh was a much more stylish director. He stages the song-and-dance and the action sequences with equal panache, with the final shootout a brilliantly chaotic set-piece quite distinct from John Woo’s celebrated bullet ballets. Although the film gradually settles into a more sedate style, viewers are liable to cherish the surreal musical numbers notably one sequence with Johnny chained inside a giant birdcage while refugees from the cast of Hair groove around with wild abandon. Eye-catching costumes and set-design add to the fun. Who else but David Chiang could cut such a masculine figure bedecked in gold trousers, white shirt, black gloves and a yellow silk scarf?
Chiang broods charismatically, but even his no-nonsense heroism can’t obscure the gay subtext. Comedian Dean Shek, most famous in the west for his dramatic turn in A Better Tomorrow II (1987), plays a gay gangster named Fairy who - despite his crass nickname and grisly demise - is portrayed quite sympathetically. Also, given the way Old Fung repeatedly rebuffs slinky, miniskirted Ho Man and leers at Johnny, it is implied he wants our dashing hero as something more besides a mere criminal cohort. Nevertheless, the film ends as it began with girls going wild and pastel-shaded dancers swaying while Johnny sings his heart out. Several years later, Chang Cheh and David Chiang reteamed for an even more unorthodox Shaw Brothers musical, the frankly insane Heaven & Hell (1978).